Saturday, January 29, 2005

Indecision 2005

Finally, at an accrued and anticipated cost of just under $300 billion and an actual cost of 1,411 American lives -- to say nothing of the thousands of Iraqi citizens killed, physically maimed and emotionally butchered as a result of the American invasion almost two years ago -- the U.S.-engineered election is at hand. Tomorrow, Sunday, Jan. 30, Iraqi citizens will go to the polls, or not, to begin an experiment with democracy -- or at the very least, an experiment with the machinery by which democracy purports to take place.

That's not a phony distinction. Some observers of the situation on the ground in Iraq have noted that, while the trappings and actions of a democracy may be in place, the visceral, organic essence of the real thing is a long way off. The administration has mounted the hollow argument that any election beats what they had under Saddam Hussein -- an electoral Hobson's choice that persisted for decades. What's lost in the administration view is any sense of the ways in which democracy imposed under the threat or presence of the gun -- the insurgents or those of the United States -- cannot be democracy.

The administration is loathe to use the E word -- exit -- but its every action at this point is focused on the judicious extraction of American forces as fast as possible, as quietly as possible. No one, from the President to the policy tweakers just outside the Oval to the thinktank mavens, will say as much for attribution, but an exit strategy is well along at the W2 White House. Bet the mortgage.

For that reason, the highly visible security efforts of the United States -- a matter of negotiating the tricky ground of being the primary muscle in the region while appearing to take a back seat to the Iraqi troops, thereby reinforcing the idea of this being an Iraqi operation -- may be wasted as a result of either the outcome of the election or the violence sure to continue regardless of who "wins" the election.

The Iraqis, like everyone else in the world, read history books. They know where this is going based on where it's been before. There must be an Iraqi word, an expression, for "Vietnamization." If not yet there will be soon, because that's exactly what's taking shape -- what's been taking shape in country for months.

The problem with it, from an American perspective, is that it sets the stage for introducing the same kind of geopolitical situation that occured in Vietnam, a situation that required our prolonged military presence to insure a democratic outcome favorable to the West. What happened in Vietnam will likely happen in Iraq: a return, however protracted it may be, to the political and cultural affinities the region is accustomed to -- a return to the politics the Iraqis are comfortable with, no matter how much that politics may be an affront to the guarantors of the new electoral process.

And sooner or later, here's the American dilemma: No matter how long we stay (imposing our will by coincidence or by design through our very presence there), whenever we leave, the region returns to the indigenous strategies, customs and values that were there generations before the United States arrived -- the strategies and customs the Iraqis recognize, and embrace, whether Washington does or not. And if Washington doesn't like it, there's nothing Washington can do without reasserting some measure of armed control in the country -- revisiting the quagmire, and kicking the legs out from under the very notion of participatory democracy the United States is killing, and dying, to advance.

Sen. Ted Kennedy has been lately both relentless and right about one thing: Iraq is George Bush's Vietnam. The exits may not be the quite the same, but there are and have been disturbing paralells for a long time. Among those is the prospect of a proper departure from the land of our miseries. Nixon called it "peace with honor." We'll see what the Bush babies will call it this time.

The administration will be loudly trumpeting if they pull this off, and it's hard to imagine the minions of Abu Musab al-Zarqai slaughtering civilians en masse -- wiping out the very people they purport to rescue on the first election day in more than fifty years. There'll be a turnout -- maybe more, on a percentage basis than that in the nation engineering this election. That would be sweet irony indeed: Under threat of death, more of the people of a country at the epicenter of war show up at the polls than those from the nation fighting to insure their right to vote.

Maybe that's a good sign. You can't embrace democracy without embracing irony first.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Great American Empath

Johnny Carson, celebrated host of the "Tonight Show," for thirty years the archetype of late-night television, went dark on Sunday morning at his home in Malibu, surrounded by family and the love of millions as ubiquitous as the medium he helped define. He was 79.

In the most public, the most exhibitionist of mediums, Johnny Carson was an enduring paradox, an intensely private man whose high-profile visibility belied that embrace of privacy. But America brought him into its private homes, hearts and other sanctuaries. We trsutedn him. There was somerhing about Johnny; you felt like you could tell him anything and he'd still be your friend, your confidante, the one who'd always laugh at your dumb jokes and keep you going any way he could.

Johnny Carson was the great American empath, that ribald, uproarious, self-effacing conduit of the nation's interests, passions, fears and dreams. When he bounced out from behind that multicolored curtain and bowed to Ed and Doc, you didn't know what he was going to say that evening, you had no idea what rabbit he'd pull out of which hat. He kept us guessing, even while he kept us enthralled by the certainty of some madcap good time.

Unlike his successor, Jay Leno, Johnny Carson had the idea of near-perfect comedic timing. Leno has the mien of a Catskills comic defensive about the laughs he's not getting from material that's not as good as he thinks it is. Leno comes on a little too aggressive, too twitchy, too wired, too weird, too self-absorbed.

Johnny Carson was a host in every ennobling sense of the word: solicitious, charitable, someone you were having a conversation with, a conversation punctuated with jokes when necessary, but jokes always well-timed and often at his own expense. It was humor with a deft but powerful touch, not the whoopee-cushion-and-joy-buzzer style of his successor.

Sunday, January 9, 2005

Happy new year

"So this is the New Year, and I don't feel any different," Death Cab for Cutie sings. I can relate, I think.

Are we really less than twelve months from being halfway through this decade that no one's found a really good shorthand name for? Time flies whether you're having fun or not.

New Year's Day and the quiet time for a week after that is a good time to reflect.
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